Quick! What’s a deep maroon color, looks like a squashed football and works 24/7 keeping you detoxed?
Answer: Your liver. And that hardworking organ is facing surprising new threats from your dinner plate and medicine cabinet.
First, some background. Your liver skims toxins from your bloodstream, metabolizes drugs, filters and repackages 99 percent of nutrients from your diet (mostly into blood sugar, but also into triglycerides and cholesterol) and produces fat-digesting bile.
Until about a decade ago, the biggest threats to your liver were hepatitis infection and alcohol abuse. Now overdoing acetaminophen is the No. 1 cause of sudden liver failure in the U.S.
Unsafe herbal meds and supplements – such as the fat-burning pill that recently caused 24 cases of liver disease, two liver transplants and one death in Hawaii – also are responsible for ever more hepatic disorders. But around the corner, there’s something even worse: The next wave of liver problems will be launched by our expanding epidemic of obesity.
Overdoing calories – especially from red meat and sugary drinks – is the reason 33 percent of adults have nonalcoholic fatty liver disease – a fat buildup in liver cells that leads to swelling, scarring or even liver failure for up to half of those with the condition. Within five years, fatty liver due to obesity could be the new No. 1 reason for liver failure and the need for liver transplants in the U.S. and Canada.
You can’t feel the slow buildup of fat, though your doc can spot it early with an ultrasound or later via a routine blood test. (Be sure to ask for liver readings at your next physical.) But don’t wait for bad news. Here’s how to show your liver a little more love every day:
1. Stop seeing – and eating – red: A diet packed with red meat boosts bodywide inflammation and raises your risk for a fat-packed liver by 45 percent. Munching 4 ounces a day triples your risk, compared with folks who indulge only once in a while.
2. Put more fish and green veggies on your plate: Seafood, like salmon and ocean trout, is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which discourage fat buildup in the liver. So does purified omega-7 (for more info, see “YOU: The Owner’s Manual, Updated and Expanded Edition”). Veggies, such as asparagus, contain minerals and amino acids that help liver cells detox themselves. And broccoli and cabbage contain sulfur compounds that help your liver clear toxins from your body.
3. Say “so long” to sugary drinks: They raise fatty liver odds by 45 percent. The reason: Fructose in soft drinks, and other sweet treats, revs up the liver’s production of fats. In their place, wet your whistle with coffee and tea. Caffeine stimulates the breakdown of lipids stored in liver cells. There’s evidence that four cups of coffee or tea a day could help prevent NAFLD. Dr. Oz’s favorite liver elixir: A quarter-cup of warm water flavored with the juice of one lemon wedge and two dashes of hot pepper sauce. Warm water aids digestion, lemon juice packs inflammation-soothing vitamin C, and the capsaicin in hot pepper helps your liver do its job.
4. Say “cheers,” but not too often: One crazy night of binge drinking – in two hours, downing four or more drinks if you’re a woman, five or more if you’re a man – can seriously harm your liver. And 30 percent of women and 40 percent of men do that at least once a year. You can slow down your alcohol intake with a glass of water before and after each drink, or try nonalcoholic beer.
5. Don’t believe in magic pills: Avoid all herbs, supplements and packaged formulas with a cocktail of ingredients. Far too often, they contain drugs not listed on the label while missing what they claim to provide. Your safest bet: Buy only supplements certified by the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention. And that acetaminophen? Sure, it relieves pain, but stick with the dose on the label, and never combine with alcohol.
Dr. Mehmet Oz is host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Dr. Mike Roizen is chief wellness officer and chairman of the Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic.